Leap Second
June 30, 2012

Scientists Create TIME!

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Is there anything a scientist can´t do? Looking past the state of mobile computing – which is already pretty amazing, when you think about it – there are scientists and researchers who are planning trips to the moon as well as growing bio-computers, living computers, in their labs. What will they think of next?

With some clever understanding of the Earth´s rotation and a little trickery, scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) will create time, giving the world one extra second to enjoy their late-night activities.

This extra second will be as official as it can get as it will be added to the world´s atomic clocks first thing this Sunday, July 1. It´s likely we´ll never notice, however, as the official clocks will read 23 hours, 59 minutes and 60 seconds before proceeding to midnight, Greenwich Mean Time. This extra second will compensate for the Earth´s ever slowing rotation. Atomic clocks the world over are the standard by which the Earth tells time and, according to these scientists, it´s so accurate it can´t account for our planet´s slowing circulation. Without this little bump, these clocks would continue to march ever forward. Many years from now, without this calibration, our sun would set around noon.

Much like our leap years, this leap second is meant to keep our seasons and systems in sync.

"Today, time is constructed, defined and measured with atomic clocks that are infinitely more stable than astronomical time," said Noel Dimarcq, director of the SYRTE time-space reference system at the Paris Observatory, according to the Associated Press.

"This allows us to ensure that everyone on Earth is on the exact same time."

So, who watches the watches?

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) in Paris monitors these gaps between the atomic and planetary time. As such, these brilliant minds are responsible for issuing edicts to add these leap seconds.

“We want to have both times close together and it´s not possible to adjust the earth´s rotation,” Daniel Gambis, head of the IERS Earth Orientation Centre, told Reuters.

According to Gambis, the Earth is far from consistent in its rotations and its movements around the sun.

This miracle addition of time actually occurs with some regularity. In fact, the IERS issues bulletins for these leap seconds, complete with directions on how to add the time.

According to their site, “Leap seconds can be introduced in UTC (Co-ordinated Universal Time) at the end of the months of December or June, depending on the evolution of UT1-TAI. Bulletin C is mailed every six months, either to announce a time step in UTC, or to confirm that there will be no time step at the next possible date.”

Leap seconds have been added every few years since the 1970s, though have become infrequent lately, despite the Earth´s irregular motions due to recent earthquakes and tsunamis.

More than an oddity, these leap seconds can be crucial to devices and technologies which depend on the most accurate time. Banking computers, international air traffic systems and even the world wide web run on UTC.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – the UN agency which regulates international standards – even heard arguments earlier this year to abandon the use of these leap seconds. In the end, they delayed the decision. Those who oppose the leap seconds say changing the world´s clocks and computers is a costly and time consuming practice. While the decision to abandon the leap second isn´t incredibly urgent, it will continue to be a point of contention against those who depend on the most accurate time.